Editor's note: This is the first in a series of occasional articles inspired by readers' curiosity. What do you wonder about the Baltimore area that you'd like us to investigate? Tell us at baltimoresun.com/ask.
If you ask Baltimore Police Sgt. Kurt Roepcke how the city feels about the Inner Harbor, he says most residents tend to look at the water like it's lava.
After years overseeing the Baltimore Police Department's dive team, Roepcke knows the waterway, snaking around the Fort McHenry National Monument and into downtown, can confound expectations. On some clear days, he might even describe it as phenomenal.
Several hundred years ago, Europeans settled the region in part because of the sparkling natural harbor that was ideal for fisheries and shipping. But decades of sewage overflows and industrial waste dumping have given the harbor a persistent — and deserved — reputation for being foul.
Still, experts in Baltimore's scientific, conservation and public safety spheres say there are surprises and life in the water. The often-opaque Inner Harbor teems with wildlife alongside sunken history and humanity's polluted footprint.
In the first installment in a series inspired by readers' curiosity, The Baltimore Sun took a look at what's in the harbor water and interviewed people who've ventured the approximately 30 feet to the bottom.
What we leave behind
The harbor floor predominantly consists of silky dirt — or silt — that gets swept around depending on the currents, Roepcke said.
Along the western wall in front of Ripley's Believe It or Not, trash and piles of sediment accumulate. In front of Fort McHenry, the floor of the harbor entrance is smooth and hard, he said. The shifting soils can mean the depths of the harbor can vary.
Plenty of wildlife swims through the currents and crawls along the floor.
"There's lots of fish, lots of crabs," Roepcke said. "I haven't seen any snakes, but we see jellyfish and rockfish."
And there's more resting on the harbor floor than just the living.
As head of the police underwater recovery team, Roepcke's job is to know what's down there. Sometimes that work means searching for bodies and weapons, or maintaining national security by checking ships and tunnels for explosives. Other times it means retrieving electric scooters, abandoned water crafts and old vehicles from the water.
At low tide, two sunken boats, one of which Roepcke believes is a 1940s banana boat, still pierce the water's surface in front of Fells Point's Union Wharf Apartments. Somewhere along the waterfront off the 1700 block of S. Clinton St. rests a vintage Cadillac. The police diving team has even found old cannonballs near Fort McHenry, he said.
Police aren't the only ones to pull treasures from the water.
As the city was prepping for the construction of the Fort McHenry Tunnel in 1980, an archaeological survey was conducted in a portion of the harbor near the national monument. The archaeologist conducting the survey told The Sun at the time he found at least four ships scuttled in a cove, junked grenades that were thrown into the harbor after the Civil War, beer bottles dating to World War I and an American Indian stone knife.
The indigenous tools may have been dug up during the dredging of the harbor as there was no evidence of any collection of similar artifacts in the area, The Sun reported at the time.
The Sun described the findings as "Nothing of any great historical significance, but an interesting potpourri of artifacts from Baltimore's past."
Pollution and contaminants
When a body of water is capable of supporting three anthropomorphic trash wheels, the presence of garbage and pollution can hardly come as a surprise.
Plastic water bottles and bags are easy to spot on the surface, and items like mattresses, clothing, street signs and plastic margarita cups are frequently retrieved, several experts who work along the harbor said.
A harbor initiative supported by the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore is aimed at making the harbor "swimmable and fishable" by 2020 — though those involved with the plan acknowledge that goal will be difficult to attain.
Blue Water Baltimore scientist Alice Volpitta's boat has lost two expensive anchors to the harbor floor. What they snagged on is anyone's guess, she said.
Volpitta's job is to monitor the waste in the harbor water that is invisible to the naked eye, such as bacterial matter, nutrient excess and industrial toxins.
"If it were me, I'd never touch the harbor water without gloves and hand sanitizer," she said.
Blue Water Baltimore maintains 49 testing stations around the Inner Harbor and Jones Falls that are designed to monitor water quality. The program is also helping the city fulfill the terms of a consent decree to correct the Baltimore's aging sewage system, which routinely overflows. In 2018, Maryland's wettest year on record, millions of gallons of sewage-tainted stormwater overflowed from Baltimore's sewer system into tributaries and the harbor.
That summer, Volpitta recalls seeing a syringe filled with blood and several large grease balls — a clumping of hair, toilet paper and not-so-flushable wipes — floating by her boat after one of several stormy days, she said.
The sediment that sits along the harbor floor also contains cancer-causing compounds like PCBs and hexavalent chromium. The contaminants are left over from the days when Baltimore's industrial manufacturers used the harbor water to flush away unwanted waste, chemicals and heavy metals.
Several experts including Volpitta told The Sun there is an unofficial rule among local members of the scientific community not to disturb the silt along the harbor floor for fear of mobilizing the hazardous toxins and heavy metals.
Excess nutrients also work their way into the water in the form of nitrogen and phosphorus, Volpitta said. The nutrients function as fertilizer, leading to unwieldy blooms of algae that deplete the water of oxygen and lead to large numbers of fish dying.
If there is a positive side to a mass fish kill, Volpitta said, it's that scientists can see a snapshot of the variety of life that occupies the water.
"A lot of people think the harbor is a lost cause, but actually there's a lot of life," she said.
Volpitta sees people around the harbor fishing all the time, but worries they may not know how dangerous it could be to touch the water, she said.
"People have a right to be able to use this waterway for fishing and boating, and right now that ability is diminished because of the sewage and toxins," Volpitta said.
Wildlife on the surface and below
Despite the sometimes poor water quality, there's no sign at the Key Bridge telling the wildlife "Bad water, turn back," National Aquarium general curator Jack Cover likes to remind harbor visitors.
"There's just this misconception [the Inner Harbor is] lifeless and polluted," Cover said. "But many species that are here are the same from before colonial times."
In 2014, aquarium staffers started meticulously cataloging the species found in the harbor, including blue crab, American eel, pumpkinseed sunfish and white perch. Because the water can fluctuate in salinity based on whether there was a heavy rain or dry period, the variety of species can swing from fresh-water creatures to oceanic overnight. Cover laughs when he recalls the time a visitor spotted a jellyfish between the piers and asked him if it had escaped the aquarium.
While much of the natural grasses and gentle banks of marsh have vanished since humans turned the harbor into a high-traffic port, locating the wildlife in the dark waters can be challenging.
To help with cataloging wildlife, aquarium staffers like Cover and director of field conservation Charmaine Dahlenburg have installed and monitored a variety of artificial habitats between the harbor's Pier 3 and 4. The habitats are designed to accommodate a multitude of species. Ducks make nests in the safety of grasses on an artificial wetland. Small fish lay eggs inside oyster shells held in place by a wire crate. Aeration devices make the water more breathable for aquatic life. And microbes grow on acrylic disks, which then undergo DNA sequencing to record the microbes and algae in the water.
The habitats allow the aquarium's experts to create a safe region in the harbor to which wildlife can flock. And it helps them in turn because they can record species without having to look under every rock in the harbor to see what's there, Dahlenburg said.
Since the start of the program, some species have gone from being considered extremely rare to now somewhat common, she said.
"We're amazed because theoretically we could build this and no animals could show up," Cover said.
Many species are showing resilience to the harbor's more problematic features. Cover believes that restoring the harbor's wildlife can help mitigate the problem of excess nutrients. Still, it's difficult to define what a normal, healthy harbor should look like because the water's conditions can change overnight.
"What's supposed to be here is tough to say because it can fluctuate depending on salinity and rain water," Dahlenburg said.
"There's life here, and we can bring more of it back," Cover said. "This is something all waterfront cities can do."
Cover and Dahlenburg say they'd like to see the habitat and cataloging program expanded in Baltimore and replicated in more waterfront cities that have distressed ecosystems.
"Death by a thousand cuts is healed by a thousand Band-Aids," Cover said.
Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.